in Tall Tales


In one of The Mountain Goats classic songs, ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton‘, John Darnielle sings about two teenagers, Jeff and Cyrus, who form a death metal band and dream of fame and riches. Unfortunately, due to their obsession with pentagrams, and the various names they stenciled onto their instruments — Satan’s Fingers, The Killers, and The Hospital Bombers — the lads draw some negative attention, and they are split up and sent to different schools.
When asked, in a later interview, if he had based this song on any person in particular (Darnielle spent some time working in a Psych Hospital and Residential Treatment Homes), Darnielle responded by saying that it represented dozens of people he had met (hence his introdutory comments in the clip to which I have linked).
The poignant conclusion of the song runs as follows:

When you punish a person for dreaming his dream, don’t expect him to thank or forgive you. The best ever death metal band out of Denton will in time both outpace and outlive you. Hail Satan! Hail Satan, tonight! Hail, Hail!

This song reminds me of a lot of friends I have had, and kids I have known. Kids who, for the most insignificant reasons (or for no reason at all) have been abandoned by their families. A fellow kicked out because he was awkward with his mom’s live in boyfriend. Another fellow kicked out because his Christian parents wouldn’t accept his homosexuality (by the way, kids like this are a dime a dozen). A girl kicked out because of her interest in the occult. Hell, I myself was kicked out because I was forging my parents’ signatures on notes in order to skip school. All of these things — awkwardness, sexual orientation, provocative interests, forging notes — are tiny things. Tiny things that are then given devastating consequences. Consequences from which many people never recover. I mean, but for the grace of God, my life would have been destroyed simply because I forged notes in high school (even while maintaining an A average!).
It’s nuts. Why are people so hasty to fear or despise their kids, or the kids of others? I mean, these people are little more children. Children. How in the world have so many people completely lost any sort of perspective on these things?
John Darnielle sums it up well. in further reflections on the ‘Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton’, he states:

To take somebody’s adolescence away is to deny that person some of the closest looks at God’s face that we ever get on this planet; I try not to hate the parents who, as misguided [and] confused, take young men and women away from their friends and their lives and send them away. But it’s hard. I try not to excuse the destructive things adolescents sometimes do to express their pain, but in my gut, when I write a song in which a couple teenagers vow to take revenge on the grown-ups who are fucking up their lives, well, I cast my lot with the teenagers.

In the work I do with street-involved youth, I am responsible for overseeing the ‘Case Plans’ (gag) of about half a dozen young adults, at any given time. In my conversations with these young people I always try to remember to let them know how grateful I am that they let me into their lives. I mean, my God, these people are lovely, and I’m a lucky son of a bitch to be blessed by their company. So I tell them that.
Then, when The Mountain Goats come to town, I’ll go get drunk with a bunch of fucked up kids, throw my arm over the person next to me, raise my fist in the air, and sing: “Hail Satan! Tonight! Hail, Hail!”
Because, by singing along, nobody is actually worshipping Satan. Rather, we are rejecting the judgments of those who tell us we are damned. We are rejecting the judgments that we are immoral and unclean. We are rejecting the social and religious boundaries that exclude us. And we are rejecting the god who blesses those who would do such things to their children.

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  1. Hello,
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  2. dude, be careful what you say. I love and accept you but I think you can loose perspective sometimes and I think you just did by saying “hail Satan”. My vote is “poser” on this post.

  3. one day i may try to compose a symphony which is inspired by both the song you have referenced, and the eloquently gripping thoughts you have written. if it should ever be performed, the concert hall would be reserved for these beautiful, neglected, mistreated people who have, in many ways, been robbed of their individuality, passions, romances, talents, relationships…i would save a seat for you…and it’s quite likely i would sit next to you…
    i bet it wouldn’t be hard to fill a hall…

  4. I was wondering who was going to be the first to say something like this…
    Hey Battle,
    The point is that there is nothing intrinsically terrible or evil about saying something like “Hail Satan”. It’s just words, and what matters is what those words mean to the speaker. After all, “Satan” is just as amorphous and vague a term as “God”. (i.e. the word “God” doesn’t mean anything by itself — it only takes on meaning once it is placed within a broader narrative or system of meaning.)
    Thus, within the context of this post, Satan represents the anti-thesis of the position being rejected by these kids (and by myself). Satan is the one who stands as ‘the accuser’ of those who would abandon their kids to life on the street and hand them over to the predators who prey upon such kids. Oh and, hey, what do you know, ‘Satan’ actually means ‘Accuser’!
    The challenge then, is that all of us who grew up in Conservative Christian homes need to revisit our elevated boundaries, our fears, and our taboos. I mean, Jesus did a lot of that — overthrowing boundaries and taboos — so it’s at least worth exploring those themes today.
    This, by the way, is precisely why I wrote my post the way that I did. I imagine that the post will make most Christian readers a little uncomfortable. My hope then is that they will ask themselves why they are uncomfortable, and if they should be uncomfortable for those reasons.
    Then, who knows what else might come out of this. Maybe when one of their kids decides to get all rebellious and start exploring something like the occult (Ooooo!) they won’t immediately freak out and drive that kid further away from them. Maybe instead they can sit down and say, “Interesting. Let’s talk about that.” Know what I’m sayin’?
    Grace and peace.

  5. Jay,
    Looks like we were commenting simultaneously. Thanks for understanding. I love your idea. Should you host that symphony, I’d be thrilled to sit next to you, put my arm over your shoulders… and try not to spill my beer on you!
    Much love.

  6. Audrey:
    That a good article, and I reckon it could be a decent ice-breaker for conversations related to these things, especially in Christian circles. Sometimes I have very little patience for parents who kick out their kids (notably, middle-class christians who kick kids out because of… well… pretty much anything) but we do need to remember that youth homelessness is often a symptom of other things.

  7. I agree with the motives behind what you say and I understand that the meaning is ment to identify with the marginalized. However I would disagree that words only have meaning based on the meaning of the speaker. To give an example from the bible if that were true speaking in tounges wouldn’t mean anything and shouldn’t have happened in the upper room. Words mean something to us but they also mean something to the people who hear them. What message are we sending and what message do we think we are sending should be the question before we open our mouths. I am uncomfortable that someone could miss this basic concept of human interaction.

  8. RBP:
    Well, I’m glad that you are uncomfortable with this discussion. That was half of my motivation for this post! Because, you see, you are only half right when you suggest that my motive was to express solidarity with the marginalised. Yes, I was motivated by this, but I was also motivated by the desire to unsettle Christians, with the hope that they would revisit their reasons for rejecting and abandoning others.
    Now then, back to the question of words and the ways in which we use them. Yes, you are correct that words have meaning both for the author and the reader (I limited myself in my last comment because I didn’t want to engage in a protracted semiotic or hermeneutical discussion… but here it comes!). The challenge for the reader is, therefore, to try and understand the way in which the author is using his or her words. In particular, the observation that an author uses words that I recognise, does not lead to the conclusion that he or she necessarily means the same thing that I mean by those words.
    Thus, for example, I could write a treatise about God, and a Muslim woman could write a treatise about God, and it would quickly become apparent that we mean very different things when we say the word “God”. In fact, we would not even be talking about the same being. Therefore, as a careful reader, when I read what Muslim women write about God, I do not make the mistake of thinking they are writing about the God whom I worship.
    We can now apply this line of thought to what I have written about “Satan.” Simply because you recognise the word, does not mean that you and I are meaning the same thing when we employ that word (at least in the context of this post). In fact, you and I could be talking about two entirely different things, even though we are using the same language! (Which, by the way, is what we are actually doing.)
    Now, don’t get me wrong, I realised that my readers would be bringing their own frames of reference to this post, and I used language that I knew would be provocative, but I thought the rewards (mentioned above) out-weighted the risks. Hence, Jay Locke, a fairly Conservative and Evangelical fellow (last time I checked anyway!), is able to affirm what I say, because he reads carefully and is able to determine how the narrative I have constructed dictates the meaning of my use of the word “Satan”.
    Here, then, is a key point: there is no necessary and indissoluble link between the word “Satan” and the actual being who has been given that name in the Christian tradition. The word is simply a human construct, a tool that we use to refer to the entity — but the entity is not contained in the name. Thus, as a human construct, and as a tool, the word can also be used for other purposes to refer to other things. This, in fact, is what I am doing (therefore, one could conclude that “Satan” is a tool, and be correct in both understandings under discussion!).
    Hopefully that clear things up. If you are interested in pursuing this line of thinking in your own readings, I would suggest Ludwig Wittgenstein and Umberto Eco as they have both heavily influenced my understanding of semiotics and language. Grace and peace to you.

  9. I was thinking not about the words of this post but, you arm in arm with marginalized youth (who haven’t read your explination) and the message you are giving to them, ie that satan (who is typically understood as the devil of the bible) is the one who understands what they are going through. My question is how would the youth interpret what you are doing?

  10. Ah, I see! That is a much better question.
    Of course, the answer is that kids aren’t actually believing that Satan is the one who understands what they are going through. If anything, the one who understands is the one with his arms around them, singing along, and not put off by all their spooky talk about the devil.
    So, hopefully the youth would interpret what I am doing as a sign that I have some understanding of what they are going through. This then might pave the way for a loving relationship to develop, within which we could always have further conversation about “Satan” if we wanted to (but I doubt that it would come up).

  11. Hail: to cheer, salute, or greet; welcome
    Satan: the chief evil spirit; the great adversary of humanity; the devil.
    “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
    “Do not be rash with your mouth, And let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you on earth; Therefore let your words be few.”
    I still think you should be more careful with what you say. I’ll end it at that.

  12. Battle:
    Dude, is this really how you are ending this conversation? Did you actually read anything that I’ve written in the comments above? I spent a great deal of time explaining how context determines the meaning of words… and you respond with dictionary definitions and proof-texts?
    Then, I spend some time explaining the positive Christian impact I think my approach would have on the kids at the concert… and you totally ignore what I write?
    Man. Disappointing. You might as well have written: “La, la, la! I can’t hear you!”

  13. Sorry, I read all that and you read my thoughts and apparently we still disagree. I disagree that only context determines meaning. I think that you are communicating more to the kids than you want to realize. And I think that your approach is needlessly reckless and the same thing could come out of you throwing you arm around them without saying “hail Satan”. I’m sorry I guess I owed you a long winded explanation with reasons why the way I think is more viable. But I can’t articulate why I think the concept of “context defines meaning” is absurd. (By absurd I of course mean perfectly sane because of the context within which the word “absurd” was placed). Talking with you on this subject has been disapointing to me aswell because I respect you so much and have, in retrospect, been influenced in my choice of career because of you. Now we don’t agree on a subject and it seems to be happening more and more over the last few years. It’s disapointing to me because it seems so obvious to me and so passe to you. I’m especially disappointed because at work they think I’m too accomodating to the people I work with and on my review they suggested working on boundries and making less jokes. I’m confused because God’s been telling me the same thing and I know that dicipline is the way to life. But that’s irrelevant. Man, I can’t wait till you have children. That’s why basically I’m tired of talking to you on this subject.